(excerpts from the book Heirs of Salvation: Simple Studies in 1 John, by Matthew Tarpley)
“These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life” – 1 John 5:13
One of the most significant figures in Church history is undoubtedly the German reformer Martin Luther. Luther rediscovered the doctrine of justification by faith alone when Christendom was lost in the grips of works-based religion. God used Luther as the wrecking ball of revival that shook the world back into pure religion. However, one thing commonly forgotten about Martin Luther is his tremendous doubts and inner spiritual turmoil throughout his life. As a Catholic monk, he was so terrified of the wrath of God revealed against the enormity of his sin that he wouldn’t even be able to perform the mass. Even later, as a Protestant figurehead, feelings of despair would plague his conscience until he genuinely thought he would die because God had forsaken him. Luther called these episodes anfechtungen; we can understand this word to mean deep spiritual distress in English.
There are times when God may call His children into the valley of the shadow of death, plagued with guilt, wondering if they are even saved at all. It is not just the weak but the strong; not just laymen, but even leaders of the church who struggle with assurance. The 1689 Baptist Confession says:
True believers may, in various ways, have the assurance of their salvation shaken, decreased, or temporarily lost. This may happen because they neglect to preserve it or fall into some specific sin that wounds their conscience and grieves the Spirit. It may happen through some unexpected or forceful temptation or when God withdraws the light of His face and allows even those who fear Him to walk in darkness and to have no light. Yet they are never completely lacking the seed of God, the life of faith, love of Christ and the brethren, sincerity of heart, or conscience concerning their duty. Out of these graces, through the work of the Spirit, this assurance may at the proper time be revived. In the meantime, they are kept from utter despair through them.1
Times of testing one’s salvation can be among the most painful seasons a Christian can be forced to endure. Yet, at the same time, we are called to do so in 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” It is painful, but it is necessary, and even healthy, for Christians to look back on their lives with a discerning eye to be sure they are actually saved. Jesus made it clear that many people who call Him “Lord” will be cast into hell (Matthew 7:23, 25:41-46). Because of this solemn reality, we must endure the testing of our faith. The book of 1 John is meant to be that Scriptural test, either encouraging the true believer or exposing the false. The Apostle said he wrote 1 John so that the reader may not just have but “know” they have eternal life (1 John 5:13).
Tests of Faith
First, assurance depends on true faith in the person of Christ. Christianity’s truth does not depend on the success of an individual church, the number of its adherents, or the popularity of its message. The truth of Christianity is established only by the cornerstone of a person named Jesus Christ. That is why John begins this epistle with doctrinal and devotional statements about Christ; he wants us to know the real Jesus and rest our faith in Him. Many American Evangelicals form a Christ in their own image. Some worship the “social justice Jesus,” who came to bring equity and inclusion. Others praise the “relationship Jesus,” desperate for you to sing love songs to Him because he’s so lonely without you. There’s also the “prosperity Jesus,” who died to make you happy, healthy, and wealthy. The list goes on and on! However, we must place our faith in the Biblical Jesus. We must believe He is who He said, or we worship an idol. The choice is that simple.
John makes it clear that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, truly human, truly divine, and entirely without sin. 1 John 1:1-2 reads, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us).” The God of eternity took on human flesh, called the Apostle John to follow Him and testify of His works so that we, too, could believe and know we have eternal life.
Second, assurance depends on faith in the work of Christ. In 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10, we read that Jesus was the “propitiation” for our sins. Propitiation means the removal of wrath through a worthy sacrifice, the satisfaction of justice. Propitiation means a price must be paid before God can righteously open the floodgates of mercy for sinners like us. Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sin. You must ask yourself: When I came to Christ, did I see myself as a hell-deserving sinner whose only hope of redemption was the death and resurrection of Jesus? The Son of God didn’t take on flesh to simply give you what you in your carnal flesh already want. He died in your place to remove the punishment you deserved and secure your place in the family of God. Is this the gospel you believe?
Tests of Fruit
Once your faith is in the true Christ of Scripture, assurance comes by seeing the Biblical fruit of that faith practically in your life. Consider this one example: 1 John 1:7 says, “But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin.” This doesn’t mean a Christian is perfect, but that a true Christian makes progress in sanctification. Day by day, bit by bit, Christians develop deeper hatred for their sin and love for God. The “walk” of a Christian’s life is different from the rest of the world.
Again, the Baptist Confession describes sanctification as a constant war, one filled with defeat and failure, but one where ultimate victory is promised. It reads:
In [this] war, although the remaining corruption for a time may much prevail, yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part does overcome; and so the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in fear of God, pressing after a heavenly life, in evangelical obedience to all the commands which Christ as Head and King, in his Word, has prescribed to them.2
Don’t despair for lost battles. Continue fighting for the final triumph. It’s not the missed step that defines you but the next step you choose after sinning. Proverbs 24:16 says, “a just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again.” If repentance, confession, and renewed faith are found as frequently as your failures, your lifestyle is the definition of “walking in the light.” Such traits would not mark you if the blood of Jesus had not already cleansed you from all sin.
These are just a small handful of the many tests of Biblical assurance found in 1 John. Ultimately, there are four types of people in the world. First, there are those who are lost and know they’re lost. Second, those who are lost but think they’re saved. Third, those who are saved but sometimes think they’re lost. And, lastly, there are those who are saved and know that they are saved. 1 John was written to bring everyone in the first three groups into the fourth. If you struggle with assurance, I encourage you to examine your life in light of this glorious book so that you may come to the light and experience the joy of salvation.
1 Stan Reeves, The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: In Modern English (Cape Coral: Founders Press, 2017), 39.
2 The 1689 Baptist Confession 13:3.
The full book, Heirs of Salvation: Simple Studies in 1 John can be purchased on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Heirs-Salvation-Simple-Studies-John/dp/B0BS8Z5N87